LENOX -- A man who has just nursed his mother through her last illness stands in the doorway at a country dance. He has come to collect his wife's young cousin. She will meet him glowing with the music and the movement and the touch of a long line of hands, and they will talk all the way home in the buggy.
"Ethan Frome" begins with companionship.
Edith Wharton loved a good talk -- so well that she structures novels and her own autobiography around conversations. In her honor, the Mount will hold two different kinds of conversation this winter: storytelling in Wharton's living room with hot drinks on a cold evening -- and a palaver online that can cross the world.
In the first, volunteers will give a marathon reading of Wharton's winter Berkshire novel, "Ethan Frome," on Saturday afternoon. In the second, the Mount is re-releasing Wharton's "Custom of the Country" as it was originally published in Scribner's Magazine -- in serial, in sections over the course of the year -- to celebrate the novel's centennial. And with each section, a contemporary writer, fan, scholar or journalist will write about the story.
"Ethan Frome" celebrated its 100th birthday last year, as Wharton celebrated her 150th. She set this novel, unusually for her, set in the country, in the winter Berkshires, inspired by a real Lenox sledding accident.
"I think of that snowy stillness, quintessentially New England -- to read it set against that backdrop," and to sit in company,
She and the Mount's communications director, Rebecka McDougall, can imagine having this reading every winter, as the Monument Mountain hike celebrates Nathaniel Hawthorne an Herman Melville's first meeting every summer.
This is not, Mullen added, a marathon like the readings of "Moby-Dick" at Mystic Seaport and in New Bedford, Conn. People camp out in sleeping bags for those, she said, and read and listen together through the night. "Ethan Frome" should take about four hours, she said; it is a compact story.
The community can follow it to its last impact, and stay afterward to talk it through, and finish, if they choose, at a country dance just like the one that opens the novel: The monthly Lenox Contradance will begin at 8 p.m. at the Lenox Community Center with the Russet Trio of string musicians from the Hudson Valley.
The Mount wants to reach an audience who can't walk down Wharton's long drive, under the pine trees, on a winter afternoon. While Mullen has sought out readers for "Ethan Frome," she has also curated a longer-range conversation for Wharton's "Custom of the Country." She will coordinate the novel's re-release, this year, in monthly installments.
"So much of Wharton's work was released in serial form," she said. "People would wait for it. They would line up to buy the next copy of Scribner's," to read the next part of the story. "We want to create that kind of anticipation.
"If we have participants in Sweden and South Africa, I will be thrilled."
Each month, she has invited a reader and writer to talk back to the book. Mullen wanted people from all walks of life: first-time readers, fifth-time readers, professors.
She went looking for a spread of viewpoints, she said, and she has found them, from Jim Diamond, a Brooklyn, N.Y., blogger on popular culture, to the president of the Edith Wharton Society, and to Lev Raphael, writer of "Rosedale in Love," a contemporary novel inspired by Wharton's "House of Mirth," and contributor to the Huffington Post.
Like "Ethan Frome," she said, "Custom of the Country" stands out among Wharton's novels.
"Wharton considered it one of her five best books," Mullen said, "but it's not the best known."
Undine Spragg, the heroine of "Custom of the Country," strides forward with unstoppable and crushing force.
"Everybody knows an Undine from middle school," Mullen said.
"Or from reality shows," McDougall agreed. "When I first read the novel, I thought it was hysterical. The second time, I thought ‘this could be today.' "
If you go ...
What: Marathon reading of ‘Ethan Frome'
When: Saturday, beginning at 1 p.m. Listeners are welcome to come and go.
Where: The Mount, 2 Plunkett St., Lenox
Admission: Seating is limited --
call (413) 551-5100 to reserve a space
'Custom of the Country' February installment is available now on The Mount's website, with commentary from Sarah Todd, a writer and editor based in Great Barrington.